Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration

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The Long Distance Call
FATHER SAYS THAT God is the voice in every Christian’s head helping him to do the right thing. He says that the Devil tells the Christian to do the exact opposite. This means we must be careful which of them we listen to. Up until yesterday, I hadn’t heard God’s voice but I had been talking to Him. I think I must have been saving up things to say, because for a long time I didn’t talk at all.
* * *
WHEN I WAS small, Father took me to see a doctor because I didn’t do anything but stare straight in front of me. There is a photograph of me taken by Father at that time. It’s a warm day and I am sitting beneath the cherry tree he planted for Mother in the front garden. The grass is littered with blossoms. I am wearing a blue T shirt and shorts that come down to my knees. There is a scab on the right one. My legs stick straight out in front of me. My hands are in my lap.

I can’t imagine Father thinking it was a good idea to take me to the doctor, because he never goes to them himself, but he did. I remember that the doctor’s room smelled funny. I remember there was a chair with a leather seat and in the corner a box of plastic blocks and a big red bus. I played with the bus and Father talked to the doctor.

The doctor did tests and made a plan and came to a conclusion. The conclusion was that we were both missing Mother, and the plan was that Father should read to me. So he did, and I learned all about the Nephilim, and the Ark of the Covenant, and why circumcision must be performed on the eighth day, how to clean an infected house of leprosy, what not to say to a Pharisee, and how to remove the sting of a gadfly. And as I began to read I began talking, and in a while I was talking as much as anyone–though perhaps not about the same things.

There weren’t many people to talk to except Father, so I began talking to God. I always supposed it was just a matter of time before He answered me. I used to think of it as a long distance telephone call. The line was bad, there were birds sitting on it, there was heavy weather, so I couldn’t make out what the other person was saying, but I never doubted I would hear them eventually. Then one day the birds flew off, the rain cleared up, and I did.
The Third and Fourth Miracles
I DECIDED TO use my power to help people, and first on my list was Mrs. Pew. I had been thinking about her since I saw her crying. I didn’t think she could be the type of person to kidnap children if she was so upset about Oscar; it was quite disappointing to think that Kenny Evans probably did go to live with his father after all.

Oscar is a large ginger cat who sits in Mrs. Pew’s front room window between a bowl of hyacinths and a yellow china dog. I didn’t know why he had decided to disappear. Perhaps he was tired of the dog, who didn’t do anything but grin in an empty way, or perhaps he was tired of the view. Anyway, all that mattered was that I bring him back. So on Thursday when the snow came down in flurries, I made a cat with marmalade wool. Father called: “What are you doing?” and I called back: “Reading!” The lie was justified: I was now God’s Instrument and had work to do.

I gave the cat a blue collar and one white paw and took a chip out of his ear, just like Oscar, though I couldn’t remember which ear and hoped it didn’t matter. I made an old woman in a black dress and gave her a high lace collar and little black boots and pushed very small beads in the sides of the clay for buttons. I gave the lady black curly hair, glued pieces of cut up staple in her hair for clips, painted her face white and her lips red. I made a trail of cat prints leading through the snow to the old lady and put the cat on her lap and made sure he was curled up and didn’t look like he was going to get up again. I sewed his eyes closed and tucked his paws in. Then I said: “Come home Oscar.”

When I had finished, I wondered what might actually happen if the miracle worked. Would Oscar’s whiskers be singed after being flown back from wherever he was at the speed of light, or would his fur stand on end after being brought back to life with a bolt of lightning? Anyway I went round to Mrs. Pew’s and knocked on the door. I saw her wobbling head and smelled the secondhand shop smell and felt a bit queasy, but I stayed where I was and when she opened the door I said: “Don’t worry about Oscar, Mrs. Pew. I have a feeling he’ll be home very soon.”

She turned up her hearing aid and I said it all over again, and then she said: “Oh, I do hope so. I do hope so!”

I said: “Have faith, Mrs. Pew.”

Then she said: “Pardon?”

And I said: “HAVE FAITH!”

Her hand fluttered at the base of her throat and she said: “Oh. I certainly will.”

She watched me go down the garden path. When I was at the gate she said suddenly: “You’re Judith, aren’t you?”


She said: “Thank you, Judith. It was nice of you to come by.”

I said: “You’re welcome, Mrs. Pew.”

When I got back, I wrote up the miracle in my journal, then turned over three pages and wrote: Has Oscar come home yet? and then I wrote the same on the next.
* * *
I WAITED FOR Oscar all that day and the next day too but it just went on snowing. In the meantime I decided that even though I didn’t want to go back to school, because of Neil Lewis, the snow would have to go. Father kept talking about how much work he was missing and accidents were happening on roads and old people like Joe were getting sick. Father said Joe had gone into the hospital and Watson was being looked after by a neighbor. So that afternoon I undraped the gauze and peeled back the cotton wool and blew away the flour and broke the icicles off the houses. I rolled up the cotton and dismantled the blizzard and packed up the snowmen and wiped away the shaving foam and put the blue back in the sky and turned on the sun.

On Saturday night the wind dropped. The next morning, blue sky appeared. By the afternoon the sun was quite warm. Icicles dripped outside my window like someone playing jars of water. The snow in the street became slushy and broke into platelets of ice. Father said: “I knew it couldn’t last.” I didn’t say anything but went and stood on the pavement and listened to water running into the drains at the side of the pavement and said: “Thank You, God. You have me again.”

But there was no Oscar. I waited all day and I waited all evening. I said: “Did I do it right, God?” But God must still have been busy with the four horsemen or something, because He didn’t answer.

I sat up in bed that night and watched clouds crossing the moon and veiling and unveiling the Land of Decoration. I watched the sun come over the mountain and blink a bleary red eye, striping the sky pink and yellow like a stick of rock. But there was still no sight of Oscar.
* * *
I WAS STANDING in the garden with Father after the meeting the next day when the fourth miracle happened.

Father was clearing the paths and I was helping him. Little birds had left prints here and there on the bird table and on the top of the walls. A trail of larger prints that belonged to some larger animal led from the garage doors. The buddleia bushes and golden cane bowed beneath a foam of snow, and the cherry tree branches were black and dripping. There were open patches of ground here and there where the earth and a little sodden grass were beginning to show.

Father was drinking tea, looking around with his hand on his hip, his breath a pink cloud in the air. He said: “I think it’s going to be pretty next spring when your mother’s cherry tree is out. And a few more weeks and we’ll have the first Christmas roses.” That’s when we heard tapping and looked up to see Mrs. Pew standing at her kitchen window. She was beckoning me.

When I got to the wall, she opened the back door and pointed. By her feet, bent over a bowl of cat biscuits, cracking them with his teeth, turning his head this way and that, and making hungry noises, was Oscar. Mrs. Pew said: “I looked up and there he was on the windowsill!” Her head was wobbling twice as fast as usual. She said: “I thought he was dead, and here he is, right as rain, eating for England!”

I climbed over to Mrs. Pew’s and reached out to stroke Oscar’s head. I was pleased to see that not one bit of fur was singed and all his whiskers looked perfectly straight. “I told you he’d come home,” I said. Mrs. Pew was smiling and nodding. Her eyes looked watery. At that moment I didn’t feel afraid of her at all.

She said: “Judith, would you and your father like some jam tarts?”

A vision of Father and me rolling around clutching our sides, with smears of jam and pastry crumbs on our faces, flashed before my eyes. Then I said to myself: “Don’t be silly.” Out loud I said: “Thank you, Mrs. Pew.”

She wrapped a plate in a tea towel and gave it to me. “Come and have tea with me one afternoon,” she said.

When I got back, Father had gone inside. I could see him through the kitchen window, getting tea. I didn’t go in straightaway. I stood on the path, watching the sky redden, smelling the earth, and feeling the warm plate in my hands.

I suddenly saw how everything would get better and better, and wondered why God had helped me like this. And though He didn’t answer and had gone wherever He goes, He must have known what He had done, to make me happy so suddenly, to make everything begin changing.


The Snowball Effect
ON MONDAY IT rained. Rooftops rang, drainpipes sang, and little pieces of snow coasted along gutters like islands setting to sea. Drips fell from Sue Lollipop’s hat as she crossed me over the road to school. I wondered if she knew just who she was crossing over but I didn’t say anything, because God had said not to talk about being his instrument.

Sue said: “I’m off to the Bahamas. Any day now, kid, I’m going to get the ticket.” I asked if I could come with her, and she said she would stow me away in her suitcase.

In the classroom I sat and waited for them to come in from assembly. I don’t go to assembly because Father says they sing to false gods. The smell of the classroom was making my stomach twist, so I forced myself to think of the snow I had made. And now it was turning to water. Two buckets were collecting drips from the ceiling, and rain battered the window. Drops falling from the sky stood out pale in the fluorescent light. They looked like tiny sparks, appearing and disappearing. I tried to follow them as they fell but it made me dizzy, and in the end I just put my head on the desk and closed my eyes.

The door banged against the wall and I jumped. They all poured into the room and a wave of sound came with them; they were laughing and pushing. Neil was jumping on Hugh’s back and shouting. I slipped down in my seat. Then I made myself sit up again. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said. “Not anymore.”

Gemma, Rhian, and Keri sat down at the table. They didn’t say hello. They were looking at a magazine Gemma had. When Gemma saw me looking, she held it up so I couldn’t see.

Gemma has blond spiral hair and skin that is brown all year round. She can do the splits. She has two sets of gold earrings in each ear; gold rings on her fingers; wears high top trainers with ankle socks; and has a spangly leotard. I have never had a leotard. I am not good at PE. I wear boots and long socks. I wore some trainers to school once, but they had a Velcro strap and Gemma said: “I had a pair like that–when I was four ,” and everyone laughed. Gemma is good at making people laugh. But Gemma was just jealous of my trainers because they lasted longer than hers. And I wouldn’t be caught dead in a leotard, even if it did have spangly bits on it.

Gemma and Keri began to giggle. I was getting out my reading book to show I wasn’t interested. Then a pie hurtled past our heads. A bag of crisps followed and a few seconds later a pair of football boots. I turned around to see Hugh, on the floor and picking things, while Neil shook his bag out. Suddenly the door slammed. Mr. Davies said: “What in God’s name do you think you are doing?”

There was laughter and scraping of chairs. Neil sat down, then got up again and took a handful of the back of Hugh’s sweater. Mr. Davies shouted: “NEIL LEWIS! Do you think what I say applies to everyone but you?” Neil sat down and grinned as if Mr. Davies had paid him a compliment.

Mr. Davies passed his hand over his eyes and walked toward his desk. He got halfway then lifted his foot. He said: “What the–” Then his face turned dark and he shouted: “This is the limit! The absolute limit! How did this pie get here?”

Neil said: “It flew, sir.”

Lee said: “Hugh threw it, sir.”

Mr. Davies shouted: “I will not tolerate this sort of behavior! I will NOT, do you hear me?”

He took off his shoe and went to the sink and got two paper towels. As he came back, he tripped over the bucket that was collecting the drips. He stood up and his glasses were steaming. “Someone get some paper towels and CLEAR UP THIS MESS!” He sat down at the desk, loosened his tie, and opened the attendance book. “Right,” he said. “Right! Scott! Robert! Stacey! Paul…”

Mr. Davies had got to “Rhian” when there was a squeal from the back of the room. We turned to see Neil hoisting Hugh over the back of his desk by his tie. Mr. Davies stood up. “NEIL LEWIS,” he roared. “LET HUGH GO!”

Neil let Hugh go so suddenly he fell off his seat. Mr. Davies sat down and wiped his head with his handkerchief. His hand shook. It moved toward the drawer of his desk. He seemed to consider something a moment, then went on with the attendance.

When he had finished, Mr. Davies said: “Page seventy in your English books! Exercise eleven!” There were groans and opening and shutting of desks and slapping of books on desks. Mr. Davies said: “Is it possible to do it quietly please?”
* * *
AT TWENTY PAST ten, Mr. Davies banged on the top of the desk, the drawer shot forward, and he took something out. He stood up and said: “I’m going out for five minutes. When I come back I’ll expect you to have finished the exercise.”

Five minutes! ” he said, poking his head round the door.

As soon as the door shut, a waterfall of noise broke over the room. Chairs screeched, cupboards banged, someone began to draw on the blackboard, someone else got onto a table. Gemma put down her pen and yawned. She rolled onto Rhian’s shoulder and giggled. Then she sat up and looked at me sleepily. To Rhian she said: “Neil Lewis is sex on a stick.” But she was looking at me.

Someone said to Gemma: “All right, babe?” and I felt a wave of heat pass over my body. Neil was standing behind Gemma. He said: “Hiya, spaz. How’s life in Freaksville?”

I looked down at my book. “You are God’s Instrument,” I said to myself. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”

Gemma stretched back in her chair. She said: “Judith, your father is nuts. I saw him knocking on doors the other day.”

I said: “The world is going to end; we have to tell people.”

Gemma said: “You’re nuts too.” She turned to Neil. “Her father came to my house and asked my mum if she thought God would do anything about the trouble in the world!”

He called on my house once and my dad told him to fuck off,” said Keri. “He had a hat on. He always wears that hat.” She laughed suddenly. “I bet it really smells!”

Neil said: “If he ever calls on my house, my dad will kick the shit out of him.”

I gripped my pen tightly. I said: “We have a commission. People have to be warned.”

Oh God,” said Gemma. “She’s starting again.”

Then something happened very quickly. Neil pulled my head back and stuffed something into my mouth. The thing had edges. Neil pushed it so far I thought I was going to choke. He held on to my arms.

Gemma, Rhian, and Keri burst out laughing. I could feel the heat in my face. I wanted to shut my face up and lock it away but I couldn’t, and they went on laughing. Then someone ran in and said: “He’s coming!” Neil cuffed the back of my head and sauntered to his seat.

I pulled the thing out of my mouth. It was paper. The paper made a soggy lump on the desk. I scooped it into my drawer and bent my head over my book.

Have you all been behaving yourselves?” said Mr. Davies. He opened the drawer of his desk and closed it again. His voice was stronger now. He said: “Let’s check these answers.”

But I couldn’t think about answers. Something was creeping down my arms and into my fingers, rising up my neck into my hair. My head felt hot and full again, like it did the day of the snow, and the room was vibrating slightly. Specks appeared in front of my eyes.

I wasn’t sure whether I was frightened or angry; if I was angry it had never happened before.
WHEN I GOT home that evening, I made a sandwich and watered my mustard seeds. I thought perhaps they needed more light, so I moved them to the other windowsill and prodded the soil a bit. Then I went upstairs and sat on the floor in front of the Land of Decoration.

I thought of making a model of Neil and sticking pins in him, but in the end I made a banana boat with lots of paddles and six little men with bones through their noses. I intended them to look happy, but they all looked quite fierce.
* * *
ON TUESDAY NEIL opened his mouth and rolled his eyes at me. He pushed his tongue in and out of his cheek and lapped. He flicked paper balls and they bounced off the top of my head.

I thought of hailstones and balls of fire rolling down streets. I thought about earthquakes and lightning. I thought about people screaming and buildings falling and rivers of molten lava. Then I heard someone saying: “Hello! Earth calling Judith!

Well,” said Mr. Davies, when I looked up, “now that we’re all here…”

Neil’s lip curled and his eyes smiled.

At eleven o’clock, I went up to the desk for my work to be marked. I watched the army of black hairs move back and forth in Mr. Davies’s nose and smelled the sharp tobacco smell coming down it and waited for him. He handed my book back to me and said to the class: “Listen everyone, we have someone here who has already finished.” When I went back to my seat, Neil’s eyes followed me.

One by one everyone else came up to the desk with their books to be marked. At half past eleven Mr. Davies said: “You three at the back–the rest of the class is waiting for you.” Then Neil, Lee, and Gareth came shuffling to the front with their exercise books and slouched in a line.

Neil stood right behind our table. I could hear the rustle of his Puffa jacket and the silky sound of his warm up pants and smell the sickly smell of his skin. Gemma was smiling, but I couldn’t see why. A minute later I heard a noise like a little trumpet and something landed on my hand. I looked down and saw a perfectly round plug of snot, pale green and circled with red. It must have fitted the inside of Neil’s nose exactly.

Gemma said: “What’s that?”

Keri said: “Gross!”

Rhian said: “Oh my God.”

My head began to get hot. I looked for something to get rid of it but I couldn’t find anything, so I wiped my hand against the underside of the chair, bent my head over my book, and began writing very fast but I couldn’t remember what.

Mr. Davies finished marking Gareth’s book and began to mark Lee’s. The line moved forward. Neil stayed where he was. I heard him shuttle a slug of snot to the back of his nose. Then I felt something in my hair.

Oh my God,” Gemma said. “Judith, what’s in your hair ?”

I put up my hand and my fingers came away covered with green paste.

I felt dizzy. I tried to tear a page from my exercise book, but my hands were shaking and it tore wide.

Neil said: “Judith tore her exercise book, sir.”

Mr. Davies looked up. “Judith, did you tear your book?”

Neil made a chopping motion with his hand.

I didn’t mean to,” I said.

She’s lying, sir,” said Neil. “She did it on purpose.”

Be quiet, Neil,” said Mr. Davies.

It’s true, sir,” said Gemma. “I saw her.”

Mr. Davies frowned. “Judith, I’m surprised at you. We don’t deface school property here.” He turned back to marking Lee’s book.

My head was very hot now. After a minute I tried to wipe away the snot, but the paper only spread it. Gemma said: “Sir, I don’t want to sit next to Judith.”

Mr. Davies said: “What is going on at that table?”

Rhian said: “Judith needs a tissue, sir.”

Mr. Davies said: “Judith, if you need a tissue, then go to the toilets and get one. I wouldn’t have thought I would have to tell you that.”

When I didn’t move he said: “Well, go on.”

As I got up, Neil smiled.

And wash your hands!” Mr. Davies called after me.

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